Research Intelligence - Bright young things with time to shine

Dale fellowships aim to empower new scholars to ask 'really difficult questions'. Paul Jump reports

November 3, 2011

Securing a permanent academic post remains at least as hard as it ever was. But for a select few young researchers in biomedicine, it looks set to become a little bit easier.

In previous eras, academics were typically recruited straight from postdoctoral work or even doctoral study. But according to David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, new permanent recruits are now expected to have a "proven record of achievement".

And the only ones able to build up such records are the roughly 10 per cent of applicants who win the fellowships offered by funders such as research councils and learned societies to support former postdocs through their first few years as independent researchers.

According to Ian Walmsley, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Oxford, the UK's network of fellowships already amounts to a "unique system to enable young researchers to innovate and lead the way in setting the future agenda for the research base".

But according to Professor Price, many existing UK fellowships have their roots in the 1980s, when academic posts were "few and far between and the brain drain was terrifyingly strong".

"They have become increasingly less fit for purpose as the system has become more sustainable and the UK has become a destination of choice for talented young researchers from around the globe," he said.

For Professor Price, fellowships should not be "a temporary life-boat in a sink-or-swim career structure", but "an integral component of a system that supports and nurtures exceptional research talent".

They should offer not only greater financial support than previously, but also more mentoring, closer relationships with the funder and higher status within host institutions, he added.

The Sir Henry Dale fellowships announced by the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society last week appear very much to fit that bill.

The biomedical fellowships will combine the "generous resources" offered by the Wellcome Trust's existing research career development fellowships with the longer duration of the Royal Society's university research fellowships.

Dale Fellows - who must have had their PhDs for no more than seven years - will be eligible for a three-year extension to their initial five-year awards, provided they are making what Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, described as "good progress".

Sir Mark said the fellowships would set a new global standard in support for "future world leaders" and would attract the best young researchers globally; the only extra stipulation for researchers from outside the European Economic Area is that their applications must be supported by a UK institution.

Take some risks, you can afford to

Dora Biro, research Fellow at the University of Oxford, said the funding she received from her Royal Society fellowship amounted to a "substantial sum" for someone in her field, animal research. But she acknowledged that Fellows in more expensive fields were less fortunate.

"For them, the extra funding would make a huge difference in terms of getting set up ... quickly at the start of a fellowship and for keeping things ticking over," she said.

Former Wellcome Trust career development Fellows thought the extra three years of funding offered by the Dale fellowships would help fulfil Sir Mark's ambition to empower young researchers to "ask the really difficult questions".

Allison Green, senior lecturer in immunology at the University of York, was a Wellcome Fellow at the University of Cambridge in the early 2000s, when funding lasted just four years. She admitted that she had felt under pressure to obtain results within that time frame in order both to demonstrate to the trust that its money was being well spent and to provide the basis for her next funding and job applications. This had led her to focus on less risky projects.

"With eight years of support I wouldn't have felt under the same pressure and although I would still have focused on the most important questions, I would have also spent some time developing more high-risk ideas with the potential to be far-reaching," she said.

Mentoring is another element that all agree could help fledgling independent scholars.

Philip Taylor, a research Fellow at Cardiff University, is a former Wellcome Fellow at the University of Oxford. He said mentors could "provide advice on everything from grantsmanship to surviving in a university environment". They could also help Fellows with the "'what next?' decisions about everything from getting extensions or enhancements, seeking further fellowship support versus tenure, or changing direction or institute to capitalise on future potential".

Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, agreed that "if you want (young researchers) to make best use of what is often their most creative and adventurous time, you don't want them to keep falling over", adding that extra mentoring was on the society's agenda.

However, while the Dale funders intend to build "close working relationships" with Fellows with an eye to offering "advice and guidance", mentoring will be entrusted to host departments.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council also imposes a similar expectation on the hosts of the junior independent researchers it funds, known as David Phillips Fellows. However, a recent review of the fellowships, although generally positive, notes that mentoring remains "variable" and advises the council to work with departments to formalise it.

The report, published in September, also notes that Fellows still find it "challenging" to land a permanent position in their host departments - sometimes forcing a disruptive move to a potentially less prestigious university. Their momentum could be further arrested towards the end of a fellowship by their ineligibility for a research council grant without a guarantee of employment for its duration.

Sir Paul said Dale Fellows would be in a position to negotiate a "better deal" with their host departments because, unlike many fellowship recipients, they would not be reliant on them for any financial support.

Meanwhile, Sir Mark was confident that the prestige and support attached to the Dale fellowships would see their recipients "snapped up" on permanent contracts.

Leg-up boost?

It is also possible that the Dales will herald a step-change in the strength of the leg-up offered by fellowships more generally. Sir Paul is in negotiations with other funders to establish similar schemes for physical scientists.

Steve Yeaman, director of international postgraduate studies at Newcastle University and chair of the Phillips fellowships review panel, said biomedical funders that wanted to compete for the best candidates would have to match the Dales' "Rolls-Royce" terms and conditions.

However, both the BBSRC and the Medical Research Council responded coolly to suggestions that they might merge their own early- career fellowships with the Dales.

Sir Paul also thought it would not be a bad thing for a multiplicity of funding sources to be preserved.

"Funders aren't always well behaved," he admitted. "Sometimes they do stupid things."

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